Charles Williams felt he wasn’t finished.
He had a decent career in goal at Ferris State University, graduating from the NCAA Division I school in Big Rapids, Michigan, with a 22-15 record, 3.00 goals-against average, and a .899 save percentage.
But Williams felt he still had something to prove in college hockey – and, boy, is Canisius College ever glad.
Williams is having an amazing rebound season at Canisius, a tiny Division I school in Buffalo, New York, and is one of the best goaltenders in U.S. college hockey in 2016-17.
The fifth-year transfer student backstopped a Canisius 15-game unbeaten streak en route to the Golden Griffins’ winning their first-ever Atlantic Hockey regular season title with an 18-4-6 conference record.
The suburban Detroit native leads D-I goaltenders in save percentage (.944) and is tied for the lead in shutouts with 5. He’s second in the nation with a 1.83 goals-against average, an impressive stat considering that he faced 1,004 shots in 31 regular season games and stopped all but 56 of them.
Only five D-I goalies have seen more vulcanized rubber than Williams this season.
Williams’ spectacular season – he posted a 15-6-4 record – earned him a Hobey Baker Award nomination. The award is given annually to the NCAA top men’s hockey player.
Past winners include Jimmy Vesey, a New York Rangers forward who played for Harvard University, in 2016; Buffalo Sabres center and Boston University alum Jack Eichel in 2015; and Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau, who starred at Boston College, in 2014.
The last goalie to capture the award was Vancouver Canucks’ Ryan Miller way back in 2001 when he played for Michigan State University..
“It’s great, it shows that the hard work has paid off, but at the end of the day, we’re focused on the big goal that we set on the beginning of the year which is a championship,” Williams said of being a Hobey Baker nominee. “It’s great, but definitely only the beginning.”
The road to that championship starts with winning the Atlantic Hockey Tournament, which would guarantee a berth in the 2017 NCAA Division I Men’s Hockey Tournament. The 2017 Frozen Four Championship is April 6-8 in Chicago at the United Center.
Canisius had an opening round bye in the Atlantic Hockey tourney. The Golden Griffins face Upstate New York rival Niagara University Friday in a three-game tournament series.
Williams, 24, was able to play for Canisius after earning his bachelor’s degree from Ferris State because he had a year of NCAA eligibility left stemming from being a medical red-shirt due to an injury that cost him his entire 2014-15 junior season.
After appearing in only 11 games as a senior at Ferris State and finishing with a 3-5-1 record, a 3.48 goals-against average, and a .888 save percentage, Williams felt he could do better and thought that transferring to another school would rekindle his career.
“I spoke with my coaches at Ferris and they helped tremendously in terms of reaching out to teams and stuff like that,” Williams told me. “At Canisius, our assistant coach (Trevor Large) played at Ferris before, and that’s what really made my decision a lot easier. I spoke to him a lot. I listened to what he had to say, what they’re building here. It sounded a lot like what I wanted, what I want to be a part of.”
And the change has been beneficial – for Williams and for Canisius.
“We knew that he had been a good goalie, but we knew that it didn’t go as he had planned at Ferris so he was looking for an opportunity,” Canisius Head Coach Dave Smith told the College Hockey News website. “He came in right away, and he didn’t talk, he just worked. He was sincere, he was mature, and he was competitive.”
Williams began playing hockey when he was 13 after his family moved from Detroit to Canton, Michigan. He began playing goal because he got tired of losing games.
“I started off as a (forward) and my brother I were on the same team and our goalie was letting in a lot of goals – we’d lose, like, by 13 or 15, stuff like that,” Williams recalled. “I told my brother ‘If you keep scoring, I’ll try to stop the puck.’ Everyone had to go through a rotation playing goalie and I wanted to volunteer, and it actually worked out great. We started winning and we didn’t want to change it.”
Williams is one of the few black goaltenders in U.S. college hockey history. The College Hockey News, in its research, only came up with five others: Jamie Phillips, a Winnipeg Jets farmhand who played for Michigan Tech from 2012-13 to 2015-16; Jordan Tibbett, who played for Mercyhurst College from 2010-11 to 2013-14; Eustace King, a major hockey agent who played for Miami University of Ohio in 1996; Peter Harris for the University of Lowell from 1988 to 1990; and Carey Grandy, a Huntsville, Alabama, native who backstopped Dartmouth College from 1981-83.
With his stellar 2016-17 season, Williams realizes that he might be drawing the attention of pro hockey scouts.
“I’m really just enjoying my last year and whatever happens with pro, it will all work itself out,” he said.
If it doesn’t, Williams has a Plan B: To use the master’s degree in sports administration that he’s pursuing at Canisius to start his own goalie academy.
“I think that’s something that will fit right in with my mission in hockey,” he said. “That’s what I really want to do.”